"Slaying the Dragon of Debt" is a research project by the Regional Oral History Office of The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. The first year of the project was funded under the auspices of the Shorenstein Program on Politics, Policy, and Values.

The question of how much national debt the United States can bear is one of the most divisive issues in contemporary American politics. After reaching a postwar historic low at the end of the 1970s, the national debt has risen to a level that many observers consider unsustainable. Why has the debt grown during this time? What accounts for the federal government’s almost chronic inability to balance the budget? How worried should we be about these developments?

This project seeks to move beyond debates over the appropriate size of the national deficit and debt by exploring the recent history of federal budgeting. Through a series of in-depth oral histories with key government officials, we plan on historicizing the debt issue by investigating the various contexts in which policy makers, experts, and public advocates have thought about and sought to improve the nation’s fiscal condition.

We begin our investigation in the 1970s, when the end of the Bretton Woods monetary regime, the emergence of global financial markets, and the deterioration in the U.S. balance of trade heralded a changing role for the United States in the world economy. At home, the potent combination of rising inflation and unemployment raised sharp questions about deficit spending and led Congress to pass a series of laws designed to increase its control over federal budgeting.

Despite these measures the U.S. has continued to run annual deficits. With the notable exception of the late 1990s, the country has not been able to achieve budget surplus, and as a result the national debt has steadily grown. How do we explain this paradox? Why was the Clinton administration able to preside over four consecutive years of budget surplus when all other recent administrations have been mired in red ink? Why has the national debt become an intensely political issue, and what are the implications for the government’s ability to manage its finances?

Oral history is uniquely suited to the task of addressing these questions. By allowing participants to speak for themselves, our interviews will enable us to gain perspectives on the events and processes that occurred behind-the-scenes and which, for a variety of reasons, are not recorded in the documentary record. In other words, this project seeks to preserve the memories of past decision-makers in order to inform research and policy-making in the future.

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